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Some Wildean implications

January 22, 2010
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So my Victorian Literature exam was Wednesday, and amongst the many things I touched on during that three-hour waffle-production session was the gay subtext (of which there is so much it’s practically just text, no sub- about it) in Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. I want to rehash a small portion of that essay here, because it’s a good starting point for the general thoughts-on-Wilde post I had in mind. The below contains spoilers for both An Ideal Husband and The Picture of Dorian Gray; continue at your peril.

Ideal Husband was first performed in 1895 – the year Oscar Wilde went to trial for being too obvious about his homosexuality. He ended up in prison, and discovered there the more serious, melancholy and heartrending vein that gave us De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol. There are clear signs in Husband, though, that Wilde knew what was in the wind, and sections of the play can be read as both a case for the defence and, perhaps, as a fantasy of getting away with life and reputation intact.

Robert Chiltern, MP, has a guilty secret. When he was “a callow youth” of twenty-two, he allowed himself to be talked into . . . something . . . by the mysterious Baron von Arnheim, a charismatic foreign aristo with a taste for art, excess and holding forth on the nature of power. Chiltern maintains his ‘crime’ was victimless: “Whom did I harm”, he cries, “by what I did?” He laments the hypocrisy of those around him: “Men would call it ugly names […] Men who every day do something similar themselves.”

Chiltern, in the end of the play, escapes unharmed: the evidence of his past indiscretion is burned, the blackmailer herself blackmailed into silence, his wife forgives him and he ends up nominated to the Cabinet, even more of a national hero than he was before.

In context, it’s extremely hard to read Chiltern’s impassioned self-defence as anything other than Wilde himself talking. It’s made even harder by the conclusion of the play being so transparently a redemption/getting-away-with-it fantasy – especially given that the ending, if one takes the plot at face value, makes no sense whatsoever.

Chiltern’s stated crime in the play is selling state secrets – at the very least, fraud, and arguably full-on treason. It’s hardly victimless: he has directly harmed his government and his country. The ending, in which his wife agrees to keep it quiet and let him continue his political career, leaves a remarkably sour taste in the reader’s mouth if read, er, straight – how the hell does Lady Chiltern, a woman of unimpeachable moral integrity as established through three whole acts, see fit to let a known traitor continue in politics? Or, for that matter, stay married to him? The ending is crashingly discordant as it stands (the BBC cut it full stop) and only clicks into place if you read ‘political fraud’ as a clumsily cut-and-pasted replacement for ‘being gay’.

There’s also the point that, especially as a female reader, the ‘wishful escape fantasy’ explanation is the only thing that even barely gets Wilde a pass on this ending. It comes down to Lord Goring baldly telling Lady Chiltern, verbatim, that “a man’s life is of more value than a woman’s”, and that she should shut up and not ruin her husband’s career because he is, you know, a self-confessed corrupt and traitorous liar. And she, woman of unimpeachable moral virtue that she is, realises the error of her ways and falls forgivingly into her husband’s arms. The end.

The options for parsing this beautiful little exchange are, to me, twofold: firstly, Wilde was both politically amoral and a hideous misogynist; or secondly, he desperately wanted Chiltern!Wilde to get away with it, and had to resort to blatant out-of-character-ness and terrifically dodgy morals to reconcile that need with the nature of his chosen substitute ‘sin’.

I really, really want it to be the second, because I love Wilde’s style – even its florider excesses; yes, even the bits that look like this:

And did you mark the Cyprian kiss
Proud Aden on his catafalque?
And did you follow Amenalk,
The God of Heliopolis?

(I have that quatrain from memory, because its sheer unabashed pretentiousness first astonished, then amused me when I first came across it in Ellis’ biography of Wilde.)

– and I also think that some of Wilde’s pontifications on art and morality are genuinely fresh and worth considering, especially the concept he explores in The Decay of Lying of freely acknowledging that fiction is, by its nature, untrue rather than concealing its fictionality. In other words, I love Wilde’s work and do not want to have to hate him for being a woman-hating bastard. For which reason I prefer to read An Ideal Husband as a Wildean fantasy thinly disguised as society comedy, where a need to preserve ‘his’ character in the play temporarily overruled his better instincts.

So that is my theory of An Ideal Husband. Now to go back for a moment: within the subtextual narrative of Chiltern-as-closeted, the details of his original ‘seduction’ bear a closer look. He is led into his ‘sin’ by a charismatic older aristo, Baron von Arnheim, an exotic sensualist with an art collection and “pale, curved lips”. In other words, a fairly obvious Expy of Lord Henry from The Picture of Dorian Gray, where the homosexual subtext is even more obvious and rather more lovingly dwelt on than it is in Ideal Husband.

But I don’t want to talk about Lord Henry. The gay in AIH is arguably well-concealed enough to be called subtext; that in TPoDG, conversely, is so obvious and was so obvious at the time that it was used against Wilde at his trial. No. Rather I want to talk about a habit that I (and indeed lots of people) tend to fall into when talking about Wilde, and the implications this particular error has if you think about it.

The book’s title is The Picture of Dorian Gray. Not, as it naturally abbreviates and as the movie has it, Dorian Gray.

Long (or even short) titles have a tendency to be reduced to their salient points; the Indiana Jones films, to pick an example out of the air, will be Raiders, Doom, Last Crusade and the other one Crystal Skull (hey, I liked it) to most people because their actual titles are kind of cumbersome. And with Indy the titles are strictly what they say on the tin and everyone in the world has seen them already anyway, so it’s not really an issue.

But dropping the The Picture of bit from The Picture of Dorian Gray is, I think, an error. Look at it this way: it was incredibly, characteristically common in Victorian literature to just title your novel after its protagonist. The trend started with the first novels in English, Defoe’s: Moll Flanders, Robinson Crusoe. Think of the piles of chunky classics blazoned with a first name: Evelina, Clarissa, Pamela. And that’s even before you get to Dickens – take your pick from Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, Martin Chuzzlewit. And they keep coming: Zuleika Dobson, Mary Barton, Lesbia Brandon, Aurora Leigh. Nobody in the entire world would have been surprised if Wilde had simply titled his novel Dorian Gray. But he didn’t.

But Wilde knew his literary history and he also had, concealed behind the layers of grandiose ornamentation, a gift for subtlety. The surprising not-expectedness of The Picture of Dorian Gray‘s title conceals, I think, a Wildean point-cum-joke: what if The Picture of Dorian Gray is titled after its protagonist, after all?

Because Dorian, poor blind damned Dorian, in a sense loses his humanity to his portrait. He ceases to experience one of the processes most fundamental to humanity – age and the progress towards death (the most fundamental process, if you go with the Tolkien view). It is the painting, not the body, that takes up the task of recording the progress of Dorian’s life; the painting, not the body, that registers the experience he gains. Dorian does not learn from his mistakes, because his painting is absorbing every scar for him.

The concept of the protagonist-titled novel, from Moll Flanders onwards, relies on the narrative masquerading as a true account of said title-character’s life, their ups and downs. But that concept itself relies on the idea that the protagonist is a true record of their life – and Dorian Gray is not. The pseudobiographical ‘truth’ central to the concept of the protagonist-titled novel consists not in Gray himself, but in his picture.

And so naming the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray is a masterfully subtle nod to literary convention, invoking and playing with the concept of the protagonist-titled novel even whilst seeming to reject it.

On which note I will conclude; but I will note one more general point. My dad, also a literature student back in the day, once gave me a piece of advice that has come in handy on more subsequent occasions than I can count: if you can’t think where to start with an essay, start with the title. The relationship between a text and its title is a delicately balanced and often very subtle one, and yet far less attention is paid to titles of literary works than is given to the titles of, say, paintings, or pieces of music. But they are worth looking at, and sometimes, as here, can give valuable and unexpected insight into the text they name.

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